by Tommy Carreras
It’s been two years. You’ve been in a support group, gone to counseling, and you thought you were past it. But then, on a seemingly harmless Tuesday afternoon, the pain of recurring grief washes over you with full force.
Somehow, it still hurts that they’re gone.
Grief is a universal pain, and it comes for all of us. And it’s not reserved for the death of a loved one, either; we all experience deep disappointment or painful loss that leaves us wounded or rudderless.
But what happens when that same grief comes back again and again, never seeming to run its course?
First of all, recurring grief is not the same grief as before: it’s new each time.
Clinical Psychologist Mary-Frances O’Connor, author of The Grieving Brain, says that grieving is actually a form of learning. You didn’t just lose a friend, parent, or mentor – you lost a waypoint: something or someone that helped you understand the world, yourself, and your value. Grieving is a process of learning what those things look like without the waypoint that was previously guiding you.
O’Connor says, “The background is running all the time for people who are grieving, thinking about new habits and how they interact now.”
That being said, when recurring grief seems to “strike again,” first compassionately remind yourself: “This is something new I must need to learn.” Each day is some kind of first in this new world touched by loss:
- The first holiday season without them
- The first summer away from your hometown
- The first major milestone without their support
- Even the first anniversary of your loss
Each experience is something new to navigate, a place or situation you’ve never been in without whatever or whomever you lost. When we look at things this way, it helps us see that recurring grief is completely valid! It’s not a failure or weakness – it’s the natural human response to loss.
When we don’t validate recurring grief, it turns into something harmful.
Grief is a painful and unnerving experience. We can experience a whole range of emotions like deep sadness, anxiety, panic, yearning, and even fear. Clinical and Forensic Psychologist Samantha Smithstein says, “Grief is also about becoming untethered. It’s about losing an identity. Losing a map and compass all at once – a way to orient our life. Our love. This untethering is not only disorienting, it can be terrifying.”¹
This is why we so often avoid recurring grief, squash it, or devalue it. And that is a very dangerous choice. Strong negative emotions are not “problems to be solved.” We can’t avoid them and expect them to politely leave us alone since we asked nicely. Quite the opposite, in fact.
Suppressing or denying grief will actually make it more painful when it comes back around later. The pain of loss is a signal that you have a real need that must be met – it’s not a nuisance that you can quickly shrug off so you can get back to your life.
Unfortunately, many common strategies for emotional regulation, both healthy and unhealthy, only intend to dissipate the intensity of the emotion – not address the real need it’s signaling. And because they are effective, but only in the short term, they can create a dependency in the brain that does damage long term.
Here are some stimuli we can overuse or misuse to distract us from recurring grief:
- Sugar, simple carbs, and processed food
- Alcohol, marijuana, and other drugs
- Entertainment, ever-present noise, and social media
- Adventures, exercise, and general busyness
- Work, volunteering, and constant motion
- Gossip, obsessions, and negativity
Not all of these inputs are bad – many can be good for us in the proper doses when we use them for the right reasons! But when they’re strategies aimed at dispelling the feeling of grief, then they’re just getting in our way.
Instead of managing the emotion of recurring grief, you need to lean into it.
Start by accepting that the recurring grief you’re feeling is normal, valid, and actually important. It’s not a nuisance, a sign of weakness, or a failing of some kind.
Try to fully articulate what you’re experiencing and feeling by writing it down, recording a voice memo, or talking it through with a counselor or close friend.
Brené Brown, in her book Atlas of the Heart, says, “It’s language that helps us name an experience – and that doesn’t give the experience more power – it gives US the power of understanding and meaning.”
Once you’ve leaned into recurring grief, identify what you need.
Loss is a fact, not a feeling. You’re only feeling grief because you lost something you counted on, something that helped define who you were.
It was a real need that might now be going painfully unmet. New situations where grief wells up unexpectedly should signal that we’ve encountered a need that we haven’t yet learned how to meet in a new way.
You didn’t just lose your mom – you lost someone who loved you unconditionally.
You didn’t just lose your relationship – you lost a clear pathway for your future.
You didn’t just lose your job – you lost security, purpose, or structure.
This is why leaning into the pain of recurring grief actually helps us find freedom – it puts us back in the driver’s seat of our lives and shows us what we need to move forward effectively. Identify the need that is going unmet, and then you can make a plan to restore what you lost in a new way.
Before moving forward, remember that recurring grief demands a witness.
David Kessler, who co-authored two seminal works on grief (On Grief and Grieving & Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief), says, “Each person’s grief is as unique as their fingerprint. But what everyone has in common is that no matter how they grieve, they share a need for their grief to be witnessed. That doesn’t mean needing someone to try to lessen it or reframe it for them. The need is for someone to be fully present to the magnitude of their loss without trying to point out the silver lining.”
To fully process moments of grief and move forward into the future, we must choose to be courageously vulnerable with people we trust.
Find someone who will be ready to hold space for you, and intentionally ask them to listen. Not fix, not counsel, not advise, and not bright side: just listen. Tell them about what you felt, what you identified, and what you intend to do about meeting the need you discovered.
This exercise isn’t just good for you – it’s good for them, and your relationship. Grief is universal, and it’s one of the most powerful ways that we can connect on a deep level. We can make our grief mean something more when we embrace the comfort of those who stand as witnesses to our pain.
Stein, Samantha. “Grief and Fear.” Psychology Today, Sussex Publishers, 26 Sept. 2015, https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/blog/what-the-wild-things-are/201509/grief-and-fear.